This article was originally published on The Cipher Brief: President-elect Donald Trump recently announced he will nominate retired United States Marine Corps General James “Mad Dog” Mattis for Secretary of Defense. Gilman Louie, founder and former CEO of In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm, has written an open letter to General Mattis to suggest how the Defense Department can improve its digital capabilities in order to maintain its military edge.
Dear General Mattis,
Congratulations on your nomination as the new Secretary of Defense. As you already know, you will be inheriting the most powerful military in the world. As a warfighter, you already understand the current challenges facing the Department of Defense. Technology, geopolitics, asymmetric threats, terrorism, a rising China, and an emboldened Russia are all forces that must galvanize transformation within the Department. While there are many initiatives within the Department aimed at creating new capabilities and countering new threats, I want to emphasize a particular capability that we’ll need in order to maintain our military edge.
The world has gone digital and so must the military. Digital dominance must become the goal for this Department, and this goes beyond just cyber security. Our ability to sense, share, integrate, coordinate, and act will depend on maintaining digital superiority over our adversaries.
Digital dominance means finding ways to collect, transform, and process more efficiently than our adversaries. It means we must strive to rule and shape the digital domain while limiting or denying access from opposing forces.
Our current military is highly dependent on its ability to have access and control of the digital domain. Software drives our military systems and platforms. Our navigation and high-precision weapons delivery systems are largely dependent on GPS. Our ability to disseminate, share, and communicate on air superiority platforms like the F-22 and F-35 require that we have tactical digital links like Link 16. The digital sensors and weapon systems that protect our ships and detect our threats require real-time digital sensing and processing that give our Navy the situational awareness to operate on the open seas.
Our ability to protect our data and information is also critical. Cyber security breaches within the Office of Personnel Management, the theft of our weapon system designs, the disclosure of our electronic collection capabilities, and the publishing of our State Department communications have all significantly eroded our country’s defense capabilities, disclosed our sources and methods, and put our personnel at risk.
In the near future, we could find ourselves in an artificial intelligence (AI) arms race with China and Russia. AI enables autonomy, and that technology will drive future weapons and sensor platforms. Whoever possesses the superior AI will have tactical advantage on the battlefield and perhaps strategic advantage in the war room. Thus, autonomy and AI technology must become a focus for the Department.
When it comes to software development, testing, acquisition, and management, the Department of Defense must improve on its weaknesses. Major systems such as the B1 bomber, C-17, F-22, and the F-35 have all had major setbacks and delays due to software and data challenges. In the past, software failures have contributed to budget overruns, program delays, and reduced capabilities of major programs. A large contributing factor to all these failures is that we have failed to invest the necessary time, effort, personnel, and money in order to modernize the methodologies that would allow us to meet the software demands of future weapon systems.
As with software, new systems are also highly dependent on data quality, consistency, and concurrency. Systems must have real-time, high-speed access to data that exists locally and in the cloud. The department needs a mix of classified, proprietary, and open-source data to power its systems. Many of our new defense systems require multi-spectral, multi-dimensional, geospatial, and temporal data. Currently, our data procurement processes are cumbersome, slow, and inefficient. We must develop our ability to ingest new data types that could drive new capabilities.
The younger generation started life digitally plugged-in, so we must develop new concepts of operations, tactics, and strategies that will give them the edge they need. They will not fight the way prior generations have fought. Their methods will be more collaborative, integrated, and coordinated. Their demands for intelligence will be significantly higher and the consumers of that intelligence will reach down to the lowest ranks of the command. Their situational awareness will require more data, more processing, and faster response times, and their actions will have more impact and consequences.
Similarly, their potential adversaries will be smart, agile, and adaptive. They will be better armed and trained than adversaries of the past. They are leveraging the digital domain and in many areas, especially in the use of digital and social media for influence and recruitment, have demonstrated superior digital skills and tactics than we have. They have global access to the World Wide Web and to the darknet. Our adversaries will be as committed to their cause as we are to our own.
We understand how powerful digital and social media are in the Internet age. From the Arab Spring to the emergence of ISIS, from Brexit to the United States Presidential election, social and digital media were the strategic battlespaces where opposing forces fought for message dominance.
The department should consider a six-point strategy that would improve our digital capabilities:
- Challenge both the technology and the defense industries to develop new disruptive technologies driven by digital innovations.
- Increase investments in Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence.
- Invest in developing new methods for software acquisition, contracting, development, testing, simulation, and management.
- Develop asymmetric digital capabilities.
- Develop new concepts of operations, tactics, and strategies to counter adversarial digital capabilities.
- Create a human capital strategy to attract, develop, and retain the best digital talent.
General Mattis, while we must continue to innovate, we must also address our shortcomings, especially in software capabilities. Until we address these shortcomings, our ability to deliver new platforms and capabilities on schedule, on budget, and on spec will be greatly impaired. Dominating the digital domain will give us the means to dominate in all the other arenas in which we will have to operate in and fight.